March 19, 2008

Ulla Milbrath - Artist Interview

I am absolutely thrilled to present Ulla Milbrath from the wonderful Ullabenulla blog today at art esprit. Ulla has been a source of daily inspiration and kindred spirit to me for the past three years. Her creativity knows no bounds. Her love of teaching and her own magnificent repertoire of beautiful work from cut paper, porcelain painting, jewelry making, to folkloric sculptures simply amaze! I highly encourage you to explore Ulla's fabulous blog - it is a trip through wonderland and each turn brings you to an absolutely fabulous visual treat. She also stocks a little Etsy shop now and again too... and for those of you in the Berkeley area - she teaches at Castle in the Air!
Thank you so much Ulla!

Susan: Tell us a little about your past as a child and influences early on.

Ulla: This could be the whole interview – LOL! I had a fabulous childhood, a true ‘Gypsy’ childhood, of world traveling, adventures, art, and alternative education. My father was a publisher, and sold his works mainly to University’s across the world. My mother had studied as an Interior Designer, but chose to spend these early years designing and painting clothing, which she sold at street fairs.

This was the early 60’s after all… I spent my first 3 years in an Airstream traversing across the states and Europe. Whenever we stopped at a campground I would take my little red tricycle out and rush to the playground, try every piece of play equipment once, and race back to the trailer – as I never knew when we’d have to leave again. To this day I have a highly developed sense of direction, and place.

My brother was born when I was four, and we stayed in California for a couple of years, but by the time I was 7, we had lived in Portugal and Denmark for extended times. Both of my parents are from Denmark, and Danish was my first language, I didn’t learn to speak English until I started Kindergarten, and subsequently I have no accent in either language. When my brother ‘flunked’ Kindergarten, my parents rebelled and took us both out of school and found a ‘Froebel’ school for us. (Something like a Waldorf school, but with little or no structure) We knew it as ‘Free School’. I remember being able to do anything I wanted to do. If I came to school and wanted to make puppets the teachers would find the materials and show me how. If I wanted to paint or make jewelry, that’s what I did. If I was tired, I could just ‘take a nap’. I rarely did that, as there were too many exciting things to create and explore! We would go into the woods and write poetry, and then self publish our poems and sell them house-to-house. We’d write plays, design and make props and costumes, or puppets and then perform for each other. When there was a nasty oil spill, the whole school gathered at a beach, and washed birds for 3 days. It was heaven! I truly think those 2 years set the foundation for who I am today.

When I was 10 my parents sold everything they owned and bought a big Moterhome and left on another traveling adventure. Joining us this time were my new sisters (twins) making 6 of us in an 18-foot long house. My ‘room’ was a 1-foot by 2-foot cabinet, and an extra space for my ‘stamp collecting books’. We traveled for two years, like this, seeing Mexico, most of the states, and all of Western Europe. I was at the perfect age to enjoy the travels and make life-long memories. My parents never formally ‘educated’ us, preferring to let experience and travel be our teachers, although we did have minor school ‘stints’ in Switzerland and Denmark. I collected postage stamps and dolls from every country we visited, giving me Geography lessons I remember to this day. My brother learned the alphabet by shooting bow and arrows into a pillow appliquéd with the ABC’s by my mother! When we finally returned, none of us skipped a beat in school. Two smaller extended trips followed this one, where all was sold and off we went. When I was 17 my parents finally decided to make Northern California our permanent home, although none of us have stopped traveling.

My Mother has always been a great inspiration for me. Although a lot of her time was taken up caring for my siblings when I was young, she always had something artistic in the works. Over the years she has excelled in sewing (both clothing and home décor), batik and fabric painting, appliqué-work and embroidery, porcelain painting and water-coloring, She is a master gourmet cook, I always had the lunches no one would trade for, with ‘tongue sandwiches’, goose pate, and pigs knuckle’s being favorites… When my father retired a decade ago, he taught himself how to watercolor and my parents now travel the world painting together! A year ago they added Sculpture and Mosaic creating to their repertoire!

I was always a bit of an ‘odd duck’ at school, shy and into art. I hung out with the ‘French Club’ and ‘Art Geeks’. I couldn’t wait to graduate! In collage I double majored in Art History and Economics. Two years later I got another degree in Textile Design. Although I worked all the way through high school and College, mostly for my father’s publishing firm, I’ve been self-employed since I was 24, and teaching since I was about 30.

Susan: How did you come around to blogging?

Ulla: Somewhere around 2003 I discovered blogs. I had just been let go as a high school Art Teacher by our dear Governor, along with 300 other California high school art teachers and was looking all over the net for inspiration and information on other artists. I loved how personal blogs where, and how easy it was to share and learn and chat online. At some point I discovered L.K. Ludwig’s blog, and fell in love with her look and style, and how she mixed life, family and art together. My blog was designed with her blog very much in mind. I had also recently begun teaching at ‘Castle In The Air’ and wanted a forum to share my ideas, and inspiration with my students. ‘Once a teacher, always a teacher!’ A few months after I began blogging my husband had 2 strokes, which really threw me for a mental loop, and blogging truly saved me! I’ve always fought with Depression, and Black Moods, but facing the possibility of being a widow was a real test for me. Suddenly I had a whole world of friends to chat with and share my life with. Fortunately my husband has completely healed and my blogging family has grown leaps and bounds!

ulla's backyard labyrinth!

Susan: What sort of things inspires you most?

Ulla: Off the top of my head, I’d have to say Fairy-tales and Folklore. I’ve always been a ‘dreamer’ and often step into fairy-tale like stories in my head, when I need a distraction… I adore looking at children’s book illustrations, and have quite a collection of old and new books that I refer to often. Being a super-visual person, I am always searching for new and wonderful images. I am also a magazine junkie, and can spend a couple hundred dollars a month on foreign magazines. I keep extensive ‘journals’ filled with all my favorite found images for future inspiration. Shopping trips, or as I call them ‘Go see-em’s’, are also great for inspiration. I don’t usually buy much, just soak up what’s new and exciting and store it away for future reference. I love working in Berkeley for this reason alone – it’s really a hub for the hip, artistic and young. Museums and galleries also inspire me. I read a lot too. I’m one of those people who has 26 different books going at one time…. And they are all next to my bed! All kinds of books, from ‘how to’s’ to biographies; cheap romance books on vampires and pirates to tomes on style and fashion, you name it, I probably have something on it in my library…

some of Ulla's jewelry from her etsy shop!

Susan:What are your favorite mediums to work with, and has this changed?

Ulla: Since ‘Castle In The Air’ sells mostly paper goods and gifts, I primarily teach paper oriented projects or things that use paper in one way or another, like my soldered jewelry. However, I think my favorite mediums are paper clay and textiles. I’ve always loved dolls and miniatures, and spent a number of years making and selling dolls of various kinds at fairs and festivals before I began teaching. I used to sew all my own clothing in high school, and still like to pull out the machine and just ‘make something’! Ironically when I first became self-employed, I was making jewelry out of ‘shrinky-dink’! At one point, I was doing 18 shows a year, with 5 employees and 100’s of account’s all over the states, but wasn’t real happy. My need to make dolls coincided with wanting to play with fabrics again and my struggle with infertility – I was litterly surrounding myself with lots and lots of ‘babies’! These early dolls were all cloth dolls, mostly ‘teapot’ dolls and animals. It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I was able to sculpt ‘human’ headed dolls. Today I try to divide my time between designing new ‘paper’ projects to teach, and creating textile art just for my own pleasure. Very recently I have begun to explore porcelain painting, an art handed down to me by my Mother. Although I always seem to be thinking ‘how can I teach this’ in my head, I am keeping porcelain painting as my own craft for a while longer.

One of the crowns Ulla designed and made featured in the Crowns book.

Susan: Please tell us about your studio space.

The number one reason we bought our house is because it had an extended garage that could be converted into a studio for me! It was the first room finished (lovingly renovated by my Husband) when we moved in and I haven’t left since. Truth be told, I could use another full floor on top, as I have completely run out of space, but that’s a whole other story! My studio faces our garden, with French doors. I have a large 4’ by 8’ table in the center, which never seems to get clean, and bookshelves on 3 walls. The two long walls have low tables that I’ve made into ‘work stations’, one for sewing, one for the computer and printers, one for porcelain painting or jewelry work, and one for my daughter! The center table holds everything else. (I warn people not to look in the garage – LOL!) All my chairs have wheels on them, so I can spin around from station to station depending on what projects I have in progress. I tend to always be working on ten things at once. I wish I were the kind of person who could focus on just one thing at a time and finish that one thing before going to the next, but I’m not. My niche is being good at a lot of different things, and they all kind of feed on each other… I like to have pretty things around me when I create, and keep favorite artwork, my dollhouse, and other collections within easy sight. It may not look organized but ‘I’ know where everything is – usually…
Susan: What does your perfect sort of day look like for creating?

Ulla: Great question! I wish everyday were perfect, but life seems to get in the way… First I would want warmth, if not sunshine, then a pre-heated studio. I have a hard time creating if I am cold. I usually have breakfast in front of the computer checking up on my blog, emails and posting. This can take hours if I let it, so I have to be careful. I love to start projects right after breakfast, non-carpool days being my favorite! Good music is important. I generally start with classical and then switch to something more energetic as the day progresses. I like to light a candle and just sit for a few minutes when I enter my studio. This gives me a chance to look around, and decide where I want to begin. An interruption free morning with quiet is my favorite kind of day. I love to go out to lunch with friends, and walk the dog, be with my daughter etc. in the afternoon. When I am really hot on a project I will often work in the studio right up till dinner.

I am always amazed when people call me prolific. I don’t see myself this way. I realize now that I tend to create in spurts, making a lot in a small amount of time. Most of my days are not very productive, being spent compiling ideas, designing, or just playing with materials. My best art comes in clusters, and often when I least expect it. Over the years I have created a huge variety of work, which I guess one could call prolific, but I see it more as a life in progress…

Thank you Ulla again for sharing your creative life with us!


Ulla said...

Thank you dear Susan, for giving me so much space on your wonderful blog!!! Super HUGS to you!!!

Unknown said...

What a wonderful story. Rarely have I been so engaged by an artist interview before. Ulla's experiences are so vivid! Thanks so much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview...I adore Ulla and her blog.
Your questions are wonderful and brought out amazing stories about Ulla and her artistic life.
Well done.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting to read about Ulla...she is so talanted and I visit her blog every much inspiration and lovely art! Thank you!
Clara from Sweden

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview, Susan and Ulla! I enjoyed reading it tonight. Ulla, you truly are a Child of the Sixties! What a creative, gypsy life you had - and are still living. I love that your parents stayed true to themselves, knowing that you kids would turn out well without the traditional lifestyle.

PS - Your painted ceramic dolls are wonderful. I believe it is in my destiny to own one! :)

Anonymous said...

You were so lucky to have parents and an upbringing like that Ulla. You must have felt you could do or be anything. Thank you for such an insightful interview!
Bend, Oregon

Erla Erlingsdóttir said...

Dear Susan.
As a fellow blogger I must thank you for taking the time and effort to do this presentation on Ulla.
She is truly an inspiration for so many people. I would say that she is sort of "godmother" of art-bloggers.
It is really well done.
Your blog is really nice, but now I have to go to explore it a bit better.
Happy Easter.
Erla in Iceland

Shelley Noble said...

What a great interview! I know so much more about Ulla now and it's all wonderful! Ulla you are amazing.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful journey that was to learn more about Ulla's lie! She truely had an amazing, enchanted childhood.....the Froebel school sounded the most interesting! I wish every school could be like that. Ulla is a unique and wonderful person and it was so special to hear more about her charming, unusual life! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for interviewing Ulla! It is so nice to finally 'put all the pieces' together; to have a picture painted of the amazing person she is, by her own words passed on to us by you! What an interesting, creative life she is leading. And in the time I have been reading Ulla's blog, I have been inspired by her to try so many new things, and return to one "old" love, that of papercutting. Thank you again for "sharing" Ulla with us all!

Lea said...

Thank you Susan! Even though I know Ulla pretty well... I learned a lot here! And I so enjoyed your questions and Ulla's answers! She is one of the dearest, generous, and most creative people I know... a treasure for us all, and you have brought those gems forth and shared them in such a lovely way... thank you!

© Shalom Schultz said...

Lovely art and blog. I just HAD to add you as an Etsy favorite!

Unknown said...

What a wonderful interview with such an inspired artist. Thank you for this peak inside Ulla's world!

Anonymous said...

Isn't she just THE BEST??!!!A fantastic interview. Loved every word, every insight. Thank you, Susan.

Stefania Morgante said...

bellissima intervista! wonderful, I'll be happy if you surf on my blog. Hugs from Italy, Stefania

Yoli said...

Ulla is amazing. I am so glad you did this interview.

Enzie Shahmiri said...

Susan, I have been visiting Ulla's blog for a while now and truly enjoyed reading this insightful interview about her and her work.


Mary DiLillo said...

Ulla's artwork is so clearly creative, intellectual, lovingly presented and refined. She is such an inspiration to me. Thank you for interviewing her! mary

Cally said...

susan and ulla - a wonderful interview!

i thought i knew so much from reading ulla's blog but there was so much here new to me, and all utterly enthralling. what a wonderful childhood, i love the photo and stories of the red tricycle, i vividly picture you making the most of every moment as it's how you still are... filling your world with good things and enriching other's lives by sharing and teaching.

Kenny Surtani said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Castle in the Air said...

It was such a treat to read this. I have know Ulla for so many years now and had so many adventures together and yet it is only now that I have learned this story - with PHOTOS!!
What a wonderful post.

Rebecca Stewart said...

Thank you for posting this feature.

I returned home (Kentucky) from California this afternoon with a very special mouse created by Ulla Milbrath. It seems my mouse was featured in a past window display titled "Mouse Castle" at Castle In The Air in Berkeley, CA.
For several years I have followed along (online & from a distance) of the happenings at Castle In The Sky, in hopes that one day I would visit this amazing shop. When I learned that I would be visiting Berkeley, I knew exactly where I was going! Yesterday, I walked through the front door of this magical shop where creativity was in bloom everywhere. After making my way up the wooden staircase, I discovered a wall hung display and tucked inside were the sweetest little mice, made of mohair, each dressed in vintage textiles and adorned with its own special millinery embellishments. I knew at that very moment, Castle In The Sky would be less one mouse, as one of these California mice would soon be making Kentucky her new home.
This evening, I am happy to say that my new mouse has adjusted to her new Kentucky home very well and will make my heart smile every time I see her.
Thank you Ulla for sharing your captivating creations, your work is simply magical